The semi-rural streets of Otaki hardly seem like a hub of hi-tech development yet, but hopes are high it will soon become a regional centre for one of the world's most promising industries.
Clean technology, or "clean tech", is being hailed as business' next big thing.
"Clean tech is a lot of the stuff we're already doing intuitively," says Investment New Zealand's clean tech specialist Chris Mulcare. "But here's a definition: products, processes or services that use energy and resources more efficiently with a lower environmental footprint."
He estimates that New Zealand could be earning $150 billion in high-value, low-carbon exports by the year 2025. Overseas, investment in clean energy alone is expected to top US$7 trillion in just 20 years.
Wellington is not the only region vying for a piece of the lucrative clean tech pie, but it's aspiring to be right at the front.
Already the Wellington City Council has plans to encourage electric cars, and Grow Wellington, the city's economic development arm, is finalising a clean tech "centre of excellence" in Otaki.
The technology park, tipped to open in October, will bring together start-ups, research institutes, commercialisation experts and young researchers.
Negotiations as to who will take a desk there are still underway but Massey University, Industrial Research, Weltec, Victoria University and Land Information's geospatial unit have expressed interest or support.
Six companies, Kapiti Coast District Council and local Maori tertiary institution Te Wananga o Raukawa will also be involved.
Even Nasa, America's space agency, is interested in using Otaki to showcase its algae-to-oil technology.
"This is a demonstration site for other technology developers," says Steven Finlay, Grow Wellington's clean tech centre manager.
Otaki was chosen for its good access by road and air, affordable housing for graduates, some existing clean tech businesses and most importantly, local support.
The town recently declared it wanted to be the first in New Zealand to supply its own power, and several household-sized experiments are already dotted along the Kapiti coast.
Tamsin Evans, the council's strategic projects manager, says when the idea of a clean tech incubator came up, the community quickly embraced the idea of using the technology itself.
It's "really helping position the town, and more broadly our community as well, as a place where you can readily bring your ideas and be welcomed to test and pilot innovation," she says.
One of the centre's first confirmed residents is SpectioNZ, a waste to energy conversion company which is conducting pilot programmes with Paraparaumu and Wellington city councils.
Using a microwave process, SpectioNZ's technology converts solid organic waste into useful byproducts such as tar, biochar and gas energy.
It's not a new technology but SpectioNZ has shrunk the process enormously, and its portability means it can go to remote locations where access to power is limited.
Managing director Mike Henare says about 3 million tonnes goes to landfill nationally each year.
"Of that about two-thirds is considered organic and it's that waste stream that we can reprocess. So we can not only divert it from landfill but we can convert it into products of value."
The company hopes to be market ready by the end of the year.
Mr Henare supports the centre, not just because it encourages collaboration but because it helps attract investors.
"It starts to demystify clean technology because here it is sitting, working."
Not all Wellington's clean tech initiatives will be shifting to Kapiti, but most are supportive of the need to band together.
Victoria University's Wetox project, which produces clean water and byproducts from waste liquids, is still weighing its options.
So is Veranis, which is already comfortably placed with the engineering power of Lower Hutt's Weltec.
Veranis, a cluster of ex-oil industry veterans and a master technician from BMW, is currently focused on trialling emulsified diesel on buses to improve their emissions.
Business manager Leigh Ramsey says most people are amazed when it's suggested that water and diesel can mix, but such technology is already running some buses in Europe.
"An engineer's job is to get water out of fuel because it's very damaging to metallic parts. And we say, yes you're right. But emulsified fuel is water droplets, very fine, encapsulated in oil, so the metallic parts don't actually see the water."
The act of putting all these minds together in one place shows great forethought, says Sean Weaver, the principal of consultancy Carbon Partnership.
"I plan to have an involvement with it one way or another, because I really like what they're doing and I want to help make it happen."
Based in Island Bay, Carbon Partnership is a husband-wife team which helps companies find "often simple ways" to lower their operating costs and their carbon footprint. It has chiefly worked in the forestry sector, where carbon credits are proving financially helpful, and in the energy sector, where waste-to-energy science offers big savings.
Smart businesses will realise that investment is shifting to low-carbon products, he believes.
"There's a lot of pessimism around the ETS and carbon and climate – `It's all a drain on the economy' – but that's not the full story because there's an awful lot of things that we can and ought to be doing that are actually good for our economy when it comes to reducing emissions."
One of the centre's key research hopes is Industrial Research, which is involved in carbon capture, marine energy and new ways of distributing energy.
In the Wairarapa, IRL has already trialled Hylink, an energy distributor which captures wind and solar energy and converts it into hydrogen.
The gas is stored and transported in a pipeline, which makes it useful for off the grid communities.
Alister Gardiner, IRL's manager of distributed and hydrogen energy, says Hylink's world-leading advantage is its pipeline.
"Normally, in remote area systems, they use batteries to store it and electricity lines to transmit it, but ... we're using hydrogen as a fuel gas which can be stored within the pipeline for short periods of time, so that it buffers the supply and demand."
Hylink is already drawing interest from overseas, and Mr Finlay says international alliances will be vital to the centre.
Contacts have been forged with Japan, India, Italy and the US, including the Pecan St Project in Texas, which aims to turn Austin into a "sustainable city".
There is also an alliance with Habitech, an Italian "green tech" cluster which is interested in IRL's technology. "They have 4000 mountain communities in Italy which will never be on grid. Our technology can support the development of those mountain communities with distributed generation," says Mr Finlay.
He is also putting together a consortium of technologies which will target India's many remote villages without electricity.
"We would [write] a funding proposal to an international donor agency to effectively light up a village in India."
Asked whether New Zealand can get on the clean tech bandwagon and still retain its competitive advantage, Mr Finlay says his presentations overseas have shown him "we may be driving the bandwagon, more than we know".
"We are early adopters, we are somewhat ahead of the game, but it's a global game and we have to form technology partnerships.
"We have to form alliances and we have to use all of the skills and the strengths of the region, including our bicultural partnerships, to form alliances internationally, to take these technologies forward."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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